Happy New Year to you and yours. Here in northern New Hampshire a big wintry snowstorm is raining on our parade, but, if you're heading out, we have a song for the season. That aside, we've come to that point on the calendar when film critics advise you to skip New Year's Eve and rent a movie instead. Better yet, rent a New Year movie, for it's a curious fact that almost any picture about December 31st somehow takes on the same depressing, desperate quality as the night itself.
The great exception is the original Ocean's Eleven (1960), in which the Rat Pack amble shambolically but coolly through a plot about a five-casino heist in Vegas. That's a jollier way than most to spend New Year's Eve, and, as readers may recall, I'm especially fond of the scene where Sinatra wears an orange mohair sweater for the purpose of getting a back-rub from some cutie. (Orange was Frank's favourite color.) In fact, on reflection, I'd advise skipping New Year's Eve and the movie rental and buying an orange sweater and getting a massage instead.
But, if finding an orange mohair emporium on New Year's Eve is too difficult, here are some movies for the moment. The classic New Year scene of recent decades belongs to When Harry Met Sally (1989), and again it features Sinatra, if only vocally. Billy Crystal is spending the night alone, planning to watch the soi-disant festivities from Times Square on TV. Meg Ryan, meanwhile, has been dragged off by pals to a swank party. As midnight approaches, Harry belatedly realizes he does love Sally, and Sinatra's recording of "It Had To Be You" plays on the soundtrack as he rushes onward and uptown through the city streets to get to her before the countdown. Midnight strikes, party horns toot, "Auld Lang Syne" pipes up, and Harry and Sally are blissfully together, except for when Harry goes into his little riff about how he's never had a clue what "Auld Lang Syne" is about, whether it means we should forget old acquaintances, or not forget them, etc.
His jabbering only underlines that we're in the heady whirl of romantic fantasy. You'd be hard put to find a less propitious night for settling on your lifelong love: someone once told me that in New York more push-up bras are sold between Christmas and New Year than at any other time of year, and that odd fact, if true, accurately conveys the Cinderella-on-speed quality of the night â€” of hoping your pushed-up pumpkins won't turn back into gooseberries at midnight. That's why When Harry Met Sally is the all-time great romantic New Year's Eve movie â€” because "romantic New Year's Eve" is mostly a contradiction in terms and other film-makers would know better than to try.
Peter's Friends (1993), starring Kenneth Branagh and his friends, is devoted to that much touted alternative to noisy, sweaty bashes: the quiet house party of old chums somewhere in the deepest countryside. The film, unfortunately, induces the same sense of glum isolation as those reunions: they're fine in theory, but the moment you arrive at the crumbling pile in Norfolk you're suddenly aware that there are no trains back to London till the following afternoon and that, even if there were, you're never going to find a minicab on New Year's Eve to take you back to the station. Peter's Friends feels like that, and not just because its participants are the usual suspects â€” Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Emma Thompson's mum, etc. The late, great Gene Siskel, film critic of The Chicago Tribune, used to have a very basic test for a film: Is it more interesting than a documentary of the same actors eating lunch? Peter's Friends isn't, and, in the most extraordinary scene, gathered round the piano the company manage to turn Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields's "The Way You Look Tonight", one of the half-dozen best songs of the century, into a dirge, sour and defeatist.
Strange Days (1995) is jollier fare, set in a dystopian future where Ralph Fiennes is a maverick LA cop and the latest craze is a "squid", a dangly virtual-reality contraption you put on your head that lets your brain plug into folks' real-life experiences â€” or, to put it in a nutshell, a toupee that plays other people's home movies. The dystopian future, by the way, is New Year's Eve 1999, so now that the squid's future has passed its sell-by date we can enjoy it strictly for laughs. Invite a few friends round, put mops on your head and try to plug into whichever studio exec's brain thought Ralph Fiennes could do science-fiction.
For Hollywood, though, the real significance of New Year's Eve seems to be that it's a great opportunity to get it on with an older woman. You may regret it in the morning but this is, after all, a night to wring out the old. The classic entry in this genre is Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden discovers he's the only guest at Gloria Swanson's New Year party. In some ways, it's the pivotal scene in the picture: in the shot of him being held tight in Swanson's arms, you can almost smell the self-loathing.
But there are old broads and old broads. Which brings me to Last Night (1999), a film not only about the last night of the year but the last night, period. We are in Canada and it's the end of the world â€” and not just in the sense that a long weekend in Winnipeg can be really long. In Last Night, the world will end at midnight for reasons never explained, and, instead of looting and pillaging, here the locals just use their remaining hours to listen to favorite songs and have sex with people they've always wanted to have sex with â€” as Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) does with his old high school teacher Mrs Car (Genevieve Bujold). It's not a New Year film proper, because there won't be any New Year ever again, no morning after the night before, but it certainly captures the spirit of the evening. Happy 2017, and, even if it's not the end of the world, here's hoping you run into a favorite high-school teacher en route to the midnight hour.